It is NOT ‘O Haupt’! – The crucial role of the chorale in Cantata 161 for Trinity 16

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Resurrection of the Widow of Nain’s Son  by Paolo Veronese. 1565-1570, oil on canvas. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

This is an extended lesson, in several steps, but please bear with me, it’s worth it and you get to watch or listen to some excellent videos. Happy learning and listening!

This 16th Sunday after Trinity seems to be “chorale Sunday” for Bach. His cantatas for this Sunday (161, 95, 8, and 27) either contain a high number of chorales, or are centered around an important chorale. Read for example about the four (!) chorales in Cantata 95 Christus, der ist mein Leben from 1723 in this blog post. Already in 1716, in Weimar, Bach put great emphasis on the chorale in the first cantata he ever wrote for this Sunday, Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde.

Why this stress on chorales? In his book about Anna Magdalena Bach, David Yearsley suggests it has something to do with widows. The Bible story for this Sunday is the Resurrection of the Widow of Nain’s son. Based on contemporary sermons, Yearsley concludes that this 16th Sunday after Trinity was seen as some sort of National Widow Day, and wonders why no Bach scholar ever discusses this in relation to these cantatas. On page 207 of his book, he says: “Even by Bachian standards, this group of cantatas is dense with chorales, the singing of which was one crucial way for widows to make their lives bearable; melodies and texts buttressed single women’s emotional well-being and held off melancholy.”

The crucial role the chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End (My heart is filled with longing to pass away in peace) plays in Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde from 1716 brings me to Part II of my review of the All Souls production by the Netherlands Bach Society in the Fall of 2019, guest-directed by Alex Potter. (Part I is here). That program included the absolute best performance of Cantata 161 I have ever heard. Unfortunately, none of the performances were recorded.

Alex Potter. Photo by Annelies van der Vegt.

I will discuss two good alternatives for recordings later, but first I would like to introduce* Alex Potter with this video by the Netherlands Bach Society. In this video, Potter talks about the countertenor voice, and explains how he came to be a countertenor. It’s a lovely and very accessible interview. But for me, the best are the snippets of rehearsals for the All Souls program. It’s cold comfort for the absence of a complete All of Bach recording, but for a few seconds, you can see Potter perform the alto recitative from Cantata 161 with the superb band he had put together for this : the dramatic so schlage doch section around 1’38” and the start of the recitative around 7’12”. Other singers in this recording are Dorothee Mields, soprano; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; and Stephan McLeod, bass.

The chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End features prominently in the opening movement of Cantata 161, is referred to in the tenor aria, and then comes back in the final movement. It was an important chorale for Bach, and he used it often. Watch this 3-minute explanation by organist Matthias Havinga on how earthly misery gets replaced by heavenly paradise in the chorale prelude (BWV 727) of the same name, also written in Weimar. **

Potter wanted to make absolutely sure that the Netherlands Bach Society audience members, who all have St. Matthew Passion running through their veins, would not hear this tune as O Haupt voll Blut und wunden:

It is NOT ‘O Haupt’ – indeed in hymnals from the time, ‘O Haupt’ is often listed to be sung to the melody of ‘Herzlich tut mich verlangen’,” he explained a few days after the concerts, when I had written him to ask about some of his choices.

By the time Bach repeated this cantata in Leipzig, probably sometime in the late 1720s or in the 1730s, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden had become much better known, and Bach might have had a similar concern as Alex Potter had in 2019: he wanted to make sure the congregation would have the correct chorale, and thus the correct message in mind.

In the original Weimar version from 1716, the chorale melody in the opening chorus was played, without words, on the organ. Listeners would have heard the words in their heads. For a wonderful example of this version, listen to Herreweghe’s recording here on YouTube, or here on Spotify. Soloists on this recording are Matthew White, countertenor, and Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor.

Bach’s later Leipzig solution: He replaced the organ part with a soprano part, using the first verse of Herzlich tut mich verlangen. For an example of this version, with all sopranos singing the chorale, watch the live performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. Please note another typical Leipzig change here: recorders were replaced by the more fashionable transverse flutes. Soloists in this recording are Alex Potter, countertenor, and Daniel Johanssen, tenor.

It makes that you hear these two texts at the same time, which is very special:

Komm, du süße Todesstunde,
Da mein Geist
Honig speist
Aus des Löwen Munde;
Mache meinen Abschied süße,
Säume nicht,
Letztes Licht,
Dass ich meinen Heiland küsse.
 Come, sweet hour of death,
when my spirit
feeds on honey
from the lion’s mouth;
make my departure sweet,
do not delay,
last light
so that I may kiss my saviour.
Alto Aria
Herzlich tut mich verlangen
nach einem sel’gen End;
weil ich hie bin umfangen
mit Trübsal und Elend.
Ich hab Lust abzuscheiden
von dieser argen Welt;
sehn mich noch ew’gen Freuden:
o Jesu, komm nur bald.
My heart is filled with longing
To pass away in peace;
For woes are round me thronging,
And trials will not cease.
O fain would I be hasting
From thee, dark world of gloom,
To gladness everlasting;
O Jesus, quickly come!
Soprano chorale

Alex Potter’s 2019 solution: Use the soprano part from the Leipzig version, sung solo by the incomparable Dorothee Mields, but keep the recorders from the Weimar version.

A pragmatic solution, as Potter explained partly in the program book: recorder player Benny Aghassi was available; partly in his message to me: “I think that for a modern audience having the voice cut through a bit more makes it clearer – also with the text. I also think that any opportunity to hear more Dorothee Mields is worth it, and I got to sing with her as an added bonus.”

It turned out to be a brilliant one. If you have ever watched and heard Dorothee Mields and Alex Potter sing a duet, you know that that is pure heaven. I also truly prefer the somewhat more penetrating sound of recorders over the sweet tones of the flutes in all the movements of this cantata that they appear in (alto aria, alto recitative, chorus, and closing chorale), but especially in the illustration of the death bells in the text “so schlage doch, du letzter Stundenschlag!” (therefore sound, stroke of the last hour!)***

Dorothee Mields

And, in those concerts in the Netherlands in 2019, we got to hear even more Dorothee Mields. In an extra effort to set the audience up with the correct chorale, Alex Potter had her sing Johann Hermann Schein’s setting of Herzlich tut mich verlangen right before the cantata started. Especially in the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague on Sunday November 3 this was an event: She stood in a very humble location behind the stage, almost tucked into a corner next to the stairs leading up to the pulpit, hidden from view for probably half the audience. Then, during the instrumental introduction to the Bach cantata, she very slowly climbed the stairs to the pulpit, and then sang the chorale from there during the opening aria. It was as Bach intended: to die for.

I mentioned before that Herzlich tut mich verlangen is also referenced in the tenor aria. It is not just with the word “Verlangen” in the text, but also with the “figura suspirans” (or longing in the music, as explained in the organ video of Matthias Havinga mentioned above) that is present here too, in the tenor part as well in the violin part. The effect Shunske Sato’s longing style of playing had on Thomas Hobbs’ singing in this aria was out of this world. Thomas Hobbs really needs a shout-out for his role in this All Souls production, even though I’m writing this so long after the fact. I’ve seen him several times in concerts with Herreweghe, and his stage presence has always been an inspiration to me, but I was especially impressed by his singing in these performances. The way he sang the sentence “Der blasse Tod ist meine Morgenröte” in the tenor recitative of Cantata 161 was unrivaled. And in the first half of the program, Hobbs and his laser-beam long notes were the star of Rosenmüller’s Dies Irea and the Gregorian Requiem that preceded it.

Alex Potter receiving applause in Naarden, October 31, 2019. To Potter’s right: tenor Thomas Hobbs, recorder player Benny Aghassi, and soprano Dorothee Mields.
Photo by Hans van der Woerd, courtesy of The Netherlands Bach Society.

Wieneke Gorter, September 26, 2020.

* Since I first heard Alex Potter live in 2018, I have written many posts about his extraordinary interpretations of Bach’s music. You can find most of them by typing Alex Potter into the search bar at the top of this post. The top three, in my humble opinion, are here, here, and here.

** Find the video of the entire organ prelude (BWV 727) here.

***Bach illustrates death bells in instrumentation, often using flutes, but sometimes only pizzicato strings, in cantatas 73895, 105127, and 198. 

Maria Keohane brings Peace

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One of the three cantatas Bach wrote for this 15th Sunday after Trinity is Cantata 51 Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!, the famous solo-cantata for soprano and trumpet. In a world that values athletes above artists, attending or discussing a performance of this cantata can sometimes feel as if we’re all judging a tennis match instead of a work of art: will the soprano hit that high C? and how virtuoso is that trumpet player? I have always been a bit frustrated by this.

What a breath of fresh air it was then to discover Maria Keohane’s interpretation of this cantata. There are two live registrations of her singing this on YouTube, one with the European Union Baroque Orchestra, under the direction of Lars Ulrik Mortensen, with Sebastian Philpott on trumpet. Then there is a newer one, from 2015, with the Netherlands Bach Society under the direction of Jos van Veldhoven, with Robert Vanryne on trumpet. That one is my favorite, and you can find it here.

Find the German texts with English translations here (click on “Text”), and the score here.

I noticed how Maria Keohane masters every aspect of this composition, not because she’s the most virtuoso soprano on earth, but because she completely understands the music. She radiates joy, but also brings a great Calm over everything and everyone. In this wonderful interview (with English subtitles here, with Dutch subtitles here) she explains how this cantata has been with her all her music-making life, how she sees her interaction with the trumpet as a symbiosis instead of a competition, and how she believes that “in allen Landen” (in all lands) means that we share the same joy of being together on this earth.

I realize she was in Christmas mode when she gave this interview (the cantata was performed in the same concert as Cantata 110 for Christmas Day and Cantata 151 for the Third Christmas Day), but I absolutely feel the “Peace on Earth” she talks about when I listen to her performance.

Some more information about this cantata:

While almost all soprano solos in Bach’s church cantatas were intended for a boy soprano (no female musicians allowed in the churches of Leipzig), it remains a big question whether this one was ever sung by a boy. Under the “Story” tab on this website, the Netherlands Bach Society explains that Bach composed this cantata around 1730 for either the Weissenfels court (where his wife Anna Magdalena, an accomplished singer who had family there, might have performed it) or for one of the Italian opera singers who settled in Dresden that year. Even Gustav Leonhardt chose an adult female soprano (Marianne Kweksilber) for his recording of this cantata.

If you’d like to hear the perfect “boy soprano voice” sing this cantata, I invite you to listen to Emma Kirkby on the Gardiner recording from 2000, here on Spotify, or here on YouTube. While she doesn’t move me the way Maria Keohane does, her voice is an unbelievably amazing instrument.

Other cantatas for this 15th Sunday after Trinity I’ve discussed in past years: Cantata 138 from 1723, and Cantata 99 from 1724.

Wieneke Gorter, September 19, 2020.

Celebrating gratitude: the third time Bach writes for Trinity 14

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Jesus Heals Ten Lepers, from the Codex Aureus of Echternach, c. 1035-1040

While my family is not in any direct danger of the fires here in California, and we are lucky in many ways, it has been hard for me to avoid going into serious flight mode this week. What has kept me sane are yoga classes on Zoom, but also a daily gratitude practice, where I write down specific examples of things that went well or that I enjoyed, and count my blessings.

I was comforted to discover this week that Bach also focused on gratitude and joy in the third cantata he wrote for this 14th Sunday after Trinity. The Bible story for this Sunday is the miracle of Jesus healing ten lepers, from Luke 17: 11-19. While Bach’s first two cantatas for this Sunday talk about salvation from sickness, the third one, Cantata 17 Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich (He who gives thanks, he praises me), from 1726, focuses on the second part of the story (as well as the second part in the painting above): the one man who comes forward to thank Jesus for healing him.

Of all the recordings I listened to, I prefer the live video registration by the J.S. Bach Foundation, released in March 2020. Watch that recording here on YouTube or, if you prefer to listen on Spotify, you can find my playlist here. Soloists are: Noëmi Sohn-Nad, soprano; Jan Börner; alto; Sören Richter; tenor; and Daniel Pérez, bass. I enjoyed listening to all of them.

Find the German texts with English translations of this cantata here, and the score here.

There are two unique aspects to this cantata, especially when you compare it to other cantatas for “regular” Sundays. First, there is no hardship to overcome, no sin to be absolved in this cantata. It is all one big song of praise for God’s benevolence. Quite unusual, but a nice change. Second, Bach writes an “Evangelist” part for the tenor at the start of part II, directly quoting the Bible text:

Einer aber unter ihnen, da er sahe, dass er gesund worden war,
But one of them, when he saw that he was healed,
kehrete um und preisete Gott mit lauter Stimme
turned back and praised God with a loud voice
und fiel auf sein Angesicht zu seinen Füßen
and fell on his face at his feet
und dankte ihm, und das war ein Samariter.
and thanked him, and this man was a Samaritan.

There are only a handful of other cantatas in which this happens, but most of those are very meaningful (Cantata 22 and 42 come to mind). So I don’t think Bach is experimenting. He probably again wants to educate his fellow believers, and perhaps make them see that that part of the story is what the whole cantata is about.

I have to leave it at that, because the other two cantatas for this Sunday are not to be missed either and I don’t want this post to become too long.

Cantata 25 Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe (Nothing healthy is to be found in my body), from 1723, starts out with an incredible opening chorus with trombones playing a chorale that begs for salvation. That salvation then appears towards the end of the cantata, in the form of a jubilant soprano aria. Read my blog post from 2016, not only to find links to Herreweghe’s fabulous recording of this cantata (with Hana Blažíková singing the soprano aria), but also to learn why Bach must have felt like a kid in a candy store that particular Sunday.

In 1724 Bach wrote Cantata 78 Jesu, der du meine Seele (Jesus, you [who saved] my soul). After a completely different, but equally beautiful and poignant opening chorus, joy presents itself much earlier, in the music of the second movement: the cute soprano-alto duet that is nowadays probably Bach’s most beloved duet. In my blog post from 2017 I recommend a Rifkin and a Herreweghe recording and I still stand by those choices today. In that post, I praised the opening chorus and the duet, but I completely forgot to discuss an often overlooked movement from this cantata: the tenor aria. I believe that Bach wrote some of his best trio sonatas in the form of tenor arias. About two years ago I started dreaming of a podcast about this underrated aspect of Bach’s compositions, and when I finally have the time and the guts to create it, this aria will definitely be in it.

Wieneke Gorter, September 12, 2020.

Setting the story of the Good Samaritan to music, in three parts.

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The Good Samaritan by Balthasar van Cortbemde, 1647. Oil on Canvas. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium. More about this painting at the end of this post.

Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday, the 13th after Trinity, all more or less related to the story of the Good Samaritan. In 1723 he writes the incredibly beautiful Cantata 77 Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben (You must love God, your Lord). Read about it in my post from 2016. Along with many fellow members of California Bach Society I had the pleasure of singing this cantata earlier this summer, each of us sitting in front of our computer in our own home. Even though we could only see each other on a computer screen and not hear each other sing, it was a beautiful and meaningful experience. And while I tend to focus on the opening chorus and the alto aria when thinking about this cantata, several of my friends pointed out that the texts are still, or again, very appropriate today. Take for example the text of the tenor recitative:

Gib mir dabei, mein Gott! ein Samariterherz,
For this purpose, my God, give me the Samaritan’s heart
Dass ich zugleich den Nächsten liebe
so that I can at once love my neighbor
Und mich bei seinem Schmerz
and in his sorrow
Auch über ihn betrübe,
feel concern for him
Damit ich nicht bei ihm vorübergeh
so that I shall not pass him by
Und ihn in seiner Not nicht lasse.
and leave him in his distress.
Gib, dass ich Eigenliebe hasse,
Grant that I may hate self-love,
So wirst du mir dereinst das Freudenleben
then you will grant me one day a joyous life
Nach meinem Wunsch, jedoch aus Gnaden geben
according to my desire, from your grace.

In 1724, within the framework of the 1724/1725 series of chorale cantatas (his second year of cantata compositions in Leipzig)* Bach writes Cantata 33 Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (Solely towards you, Lord Jesus Christ).  Because the libretto is based much more on the chorale text than on the Gospel text, it includes only one quote from the Bible story: “I may love my neighbour as myself.” But while it is just one line of text, Bach doesn’t let it go unnoticed, and turns that fifth verse of the libretto into a duet that has all the characteristics of a love duet from the Venetian operas of the time. At least the instrumentalists in the orchestra must have gotten the reference loud and clear. This also proves that the oh-so-cute soprano-alto duet from Cantata 78 (which Bach wrote one week later) didn’t come out of the blue. Here is the artists’ study for it, albeit written for tenor and bass. Read all this and more in my post from 2017.

From Trinity Sunday 1723 to Trinity Sunday 1725, Bach had provided the Leipzig churches with a cantata for almost every Sunday and Feast day. But for the Sundays between Trinity and Christmas 1725, we have only a handful of his cantatas left.** Cantata 164 Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo nennet (You, who take your name from Christ) is among these. Bach saw his church music as a means to “educate his neighbor” about Christian theology, and it seems that in this case, a third cantata for this Sunday was needed: he was not done educating his neighbors about the story of the Good Samaritan. In the parable, the priest and the Levite pass the wounded man without showing mercy. In the libretto of this cantata, this example is turned onto the Christian believers themselves: 

You, who take your name from Christ, where is to be found the mercy by which people recognize members of Christ?

It is far, far away from you. Your hearts should be rich in love, but they are harder than a stone.

Because of the preaching character of that first text, it seems only fitting that Bach doesn’t set this as a chorus, but as a tenor aria, as if to better scold the congregation. The use of two flutes (in the alto aria) is unusual for a cantata, and makes me think of the St. Matthew Passion. Bach must have wanted to stress the loveliness of the text in that aria. Watch a live performance of this cantata by the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. Soloists in this performance are Monika Mauch, soprano; Jan Börner, alto; Jakob Pilgram, tenor; and Markus Volpert, Bass.

Find the texts & translations of this cantata here, and the score here.

Wieneke Gorter, September 5, 2020.

A little more about the painting:

At a distance, on the left, behind a tree, we see the Levite retreating. Still further away, reading a book, is the priest. This is the only known work of this painter, Balthasar van Cortbemde. It was most probably commissioned by the guild of surgeons in Antwerp in 1647, because it was displayed in their Chamber from 1647 to 1798. It became property of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in 1810.

*to learn more about Bach’s series of chorale cantatas, start reading here

**we don’t know if the missing cantatas were composed but then were lost, or if they were simply never composed because Bach started to focus on other things.

Sinful pride versus humility

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Church interior with the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican by Dutch painters Dirck van Delen (church interior) and Cornelis van Poelenburch (figures), 1653. Oil on panel. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, USA, currently not on view.

The reading for this Sunday, the 11th after Trinity, is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (or Tax Collector) from the Gospel of Luke. In the parable, these two men come into the temple to pray around the same time, but talk to God in very different ways. While the Pharisee puts on a fake show about how good he is, the tax collector is very humble, “wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven” and asks for forgiveness.

“There’s something with this Sunday,” I wrote three years ago, and I still feel that way when I listen to the cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday in 1723 and 1724.

In 1723, his first year in Leipzig, Bach performed two cantatas on this Sunday: Cantata 179 Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht kein Heuchelei sei (See that your fear of God is not hypocrisy) before the sermon, and his solo cantata for soprano Cantata 199 Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut (from his early years in Weimar) afterwards. Cantata 199 is only loosely related to the Gospel story, and was probably never written with this story in mind. Because of its multi-layered history and the many different recordings, I will discuss that composition some other time.

Cantata 179 focuses on the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, and just like cantatas 46 and 102 I discussed last week, it must have been one of Bach’s own favorites, because he re-used three movements in later works. Read all about it in my post from 2016, which I have updated with better images and new video links.

In 1724, Bach wrote cantata 113 Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut, which, surprise, surprise, focuses on the Publican asking for mercy. The only recording that does this cantata justice and gives me the good kind of stomachache is the one by Bach Collegium Japan. Peter Kooij’s and Robin Blaze’s singing is outstanding, and Yukari Nonoshita and Robin Blaze make the duet into a lovely piece of music, which is–judging from a lot of other recordings–not an easy thing to do. I updated my blog post from 2017 with all the correct links to stream or purchase this recording. Please find it here.

Wieneke Gorter, August 22, 2020.

Among Bach’s own favorites: BWV 46 and 102 for Trinity 10

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We don’t have any letters in which Bach writes about his own compositions, so we officially don’t know which ones were his own favorites. But when we see which cantatas he gave a “second life” in another work, and which cantatas were performed by his sons, we can make an educated guess.

Two of these cantatas, Cantata 46 Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei (from 1723) and Cantata 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben! (from 1726), were written for this Sunday, the 10th after Trinity.

Bach gave the opening chorus from Cantata 46 Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei a second life in the Qui Tollis in his Mass in B minor. Find a YouTube video of just that opening chorus, from Herreweghe’s performance at the 2013 Saintes Festival in France, here. Find my post from 2016 about this cantata, with links to translations, score, and my favorite recording here.

Cantata 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben! received even more second lives (see table below), and was performed at least twice in Hamburg by Bach’s second surviving son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. My favorite performance of this cantata was the one by Herreweghe I attended in January 2018 at the Bruges Bach Festival, with Dorothee Mields, Alex Potter, Thomas Hobbs, and Peter Kooij. Alas there is no recording of this. Of all recordings currently available, my favorite is here on YouTube, by oboist Marcel Ponseele’s Ensemble Il Gardellino, with Damien Guillon, countertenor; Marcus Ullman, tenor; and Lieven Termont, bass. Especially the Aria Weh der Seele, die den Schaden by countertenor Damien Guillon and oboist Marcel Ponseele (both pictured at the top of this post) is to die for, and this combination of singer and oboist is simply unrivaled by any other recordings.

Find the texts & translations of Cantata 102 here, and the score here.

Movement from Cantata 102Movement in later work
Opening chorusOpening chorus of the Missa Brevis in g minor, BWV 235
Alto ariaSoprano aria “Qui tollis peccata mundi” of the Missa Brevis in F Major, BWV 233
Tenor ariaAlto aria “Quoniam to solus sanctus” of the Missa Brevis in F Major, BWV 233

A little more about the early “revival” of this cantata by Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. In 1768, C.Ph.E. Bach succeeded Telemann as music director of the five largest churches in Hamburg, and remained in that position until his death in 1788. As such, he performed a handful of his father’s cantatas, albeit with adaptations. In 1776 or 1777 as well as in 1781, he performed Cantata 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben!

Adolf Bernhard Marx

These early “promotions” of this cantata must have inspired more performances or at least discussions about them, and eventually this composition along with some other cantatas likely reached the circle around Mendelssohn. In 1830, shortly after Mendelssohn’s Berlin revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829, Adolf Bernhard Marx published three Bach cantatas BWV nrs 101, 102, and 103. It was the firsts time since 1709 that a Bach cantata appeared in print.

Wieneke Gorter, August 16, 2020.

Cantata 105 – Herreweghe forever

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In my humble opinion, the best cantata Bach wrote for this 9th Sunday after Trinity is Cantata 105 Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht. This cantata has one of the best opening choruses Bach ever wrote, and I find the soprano aria and the bass arioso very moving. And as far as interpretations and recordings of this cantata go, for me, Herreweghe’s always rises above all others. In my post from 2016 I discuss his 1992 and 2012 recordings of this cantata. Please find that post here. It has all the links for recordings, texts & translations, and score, it tells you what to listen for in the music, and also explains why this Cantata 105 was Bach’s first real Leipzig cantata.

In January 2018, I had the good fortune to attend three Bach cantata concerts by Herreweghe, the first two in Bruges, the third one in Paris.* The program in Paris featured Cantata 105, everyone was in top form, and it was terrific to see Herreweghe conduct this piece that he and his ensemble know so well. It made me wish for a third Herreweghe recording of this cantata, because Dorothee Mields (not singing on the 1992 or 2012 recording), was mesmerizing in the “Wir zittern und wanken” aria and Peter Kooij’s strong rendition of the bass arioso almost brought me to tears.

Applause at the end of the concert in the Eglise St. Roch in Paris, January 30, 2018. From left to right in front row: Peter Kooij, Thomas Hobbs, Philippe Herreweghe, Alex Potter, Dorothee Mields. Photo by Aube Neau/Luc Barrière, published with permission.

Wieneke Gorter, August 8, 2020.

*To read more about these concerts in Bruges and Paris, find my posts from January 2018 here and here.

First countertenor loves (BWV 136 and 45 for Trinity 8)

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Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday, and since my favorite recordings (for now)* of two of those feature my first and second countertenor loves, Gérard Lesne and Kai Wessel, I thought it might be nice to talk a bit about how I came to appreciate these singers.

Because I grew up listening to Bach cantatas from the cantata recording project by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, hearing these every Sunday from when I was a small child, I was completely used to alto arias being sung by countertenors. I have become better at it, but sometimes I still feel as if I have to consciously switch something in my brain before I can listen to a female alto sing Bach and take it seriously.

However, none of the alto arias from that Leonhardt/Harnoncourt project (1970-1989), stayed with me the way many of the soprano, tenor, and bass arias did. The voices of René Jacobs or Paul Esswood just never blew me away nor did their singing truly move me. I remember enjoying Michael Chance’s singing on recordings of English Baroque composers and in the arias he sang in the live performance of Bach’s St. John Passion with Harnoncourt I mentioned in this post. But still, not blown away.

That all changed the summer of 1988 or 1989. Still a teenager, I had started volunteering for the Utrecht Early Music Festival in 1987. I did that for several years and then was on the summer staff for a few years as well, all this in the team that managed the Exhibition. The booth right around the corner from our own information booth was staffed by the best CD curator I’ve ever met, Joost. He went to all the concerts, and knew all the Early Music recordings, and I LOVED the recordings he recommended. It was through him that I learned about Gérard Lesne. The second or third year I was there, Joost was selling Lesne’s Vivaldi CD from 1988 to everyone with the words “Buy this. Listen to it. If you come back to me, look me in the eye, and can tell me without any sign of emotion that you didn’t like it, I’ll take it back.” (or, as he literally said in Dutch: “Als je me met droge ogen kunt vertellen dat je het niks vond, dan neem ik hem terug.”) I became a fan, and will never forget hearing Lesne live, singing Charpentier, in the Chapelle Royale of Versailles in the Holy Week of 1994.

Gérard Lesne is featured on a live audio recording from 1988 of Cantata 45 Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist which you can find here on YouTube. It is from a concert on October 25, 1988, in the Notre Dame du Travail church in Paris, by La Chapelle Royale (one of Herreweghe’s ensembles), conducted by Gustav Leonhardt. Other soloists are John Elwes, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.

Bach wrote this Cantata 45 in 1726 for the 8th Sunday after Trinity. Please find the score here, and the texts & translations here.

My blog post from 2016 about Cantata 136 Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz spotlights my second countertenor love: Kai Wessel. His voice and interpretation was nothing short of a sensation for me when Ton Koopman’s recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion came out in 1993. That a countertenor could also have such a beautiful tenor quality to his voice was new to me, and I found his singing incredibly moving. Thanks to this, I gained new appreciation for the “Erbarme dich” aria. Because of Kai Wessel singing the alto aria, the Bach Collegium Japan recording I recommended in 2016 is still my favorite interpretation of Cantata 136, though the live performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation from 2011 is very well done too, and that video is exciting because you can see the corno da tirarsi** in action in the amazing opening chorus.

Wieneke Gorter, August 2, 2020.

*This might change soon, because Herreweghe recorded this cantata program, including BWV 45, at the end of January 2020. I will let you know when this recording comes out. It is the first time they have recorded BWV 45 and 118, and I can’t wait to hear Alex Potter in BWV 198, and look forward to hearing BWV 78 with Dorothee Mields and Alex Potter in the famous duet, and Thomas Hobbs in the gorgeous but often overlooked tenor aria.

**to read more about the corno da tirarsi, and to see a picture of the instrument, go to this blog post from November 2019.

The Bachs’ summer trip to Köthen in 1724, new insights, and new videos (BWV 107)

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Backside of the complex in which Bach rented an apartment in Köthen from 1719 to 1723. His wedding to Anna Magdalena in December 1721 was celebrated in this house, and several of their fellow court musicians had an apartment here too.

This week I’ve been paying a bit more attention to all the YouTube channels I subscribe to. So I can point you just in time to the live recording of cantata 107 Was willst du dich betrüben by the J.S Bach Foundation. Soloists are Julia Doyle, soprano; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; and Wolf-Matthias Friedrich, bass. My favorite recording of this cantata is still the one by Herreweghe from 1993 (the lines in the opening chorus! the bass solos!) but I love this one by the Bach Foundation too. It is very well done and very moving, and with no live concerts here in California at all yet, I appreciate watching live performances even more right now.

Another YouTube discovery I especially enjoy this Covid summer is the “Encountering Bach” documentary series. This wonderful production by Bachfest Malaysia currently has six episodes available, and more are still to come. The episodes are nice and short (between 8 and 13 minutes), but full of information, and very well geared towards a global audience. Bachfest Malaysia’s artistic director David Chin travels to all the places where Bach worked, and he does this together with German Bach specialist Michael Maul.* In all the locations they get help from local experts, from a soprano soloist who’s also a St. Thomas School mom, to the organist who nowadays plays the “Bach organ” in Arnstadt, to a manuscript specialist of the Bach Archives in Leipzig. Believe it or not, but I myself have never visited any of these places, and I travel vicariously through their experiences.

For the benefit of some more background for this blog post, I’d like you to watch episode 5, which is about Bach’s time in Köthen, and how he appreciated his employer there. It is no problem to watch this before you watch the other episodes. If you have more time, treat yourself to the entire series.

Episode 5 explains that Bach’s employer in Köthen belonged to the Calvinist church, where music other than chorale singing and organ playing wasn’t allowed. However the video also shows the Lutheran church where Bach and many of his fellow court musicians would have attended services. The experts suggest that it could have been here that Bach and friends would have performed re-runs of Bach’s Weimar cantatas. When I watched this, it dawned on me that a scenario I came up with in 2017 should be adjusted a bit.

In my 2017 blog post about Cantata 107, I explained that in July 1724, Bach and Anna Magdalena left Leipzig for a while (anywhere from a few days to almost two weeks) in order to visit their previous employer in Köthen and perform at his castle. Bach had been Capellmeister there, and Anna Magdalena a very highly paid soprano.

In that post, I painted a “movie scenario,” imagining that cantata 107 Was willst du dich betrüben would have been “tested” in the castle in Köthen, but I now realize it would probably have happened in the local Lutheran church instead. And in that case it would not have been very likely that Anna Magdalena would have sung the soprano aria. (Though they might have played the music through at the house of one of the other court musicians, who knows. Hoping that David Yearsley’s book on Anna Magdalena Bach will give me some more clarity on this.)

This all also means that I would like to circle back to my post from last week. I said:

“For 1724, it is very likely that Bach never wrote a cantata that year for this Sunday. Because later in his life, Bach most probably wrote Cantata 9 Es ist das Heil uns kommen her for this moment in the church year, in an effort to fill the gaps within his 1724/1725 chorale cantata cycle.”

That is all still true, but I had obviously forgotten to mention the second reason why there is no cantata from 1724 for Trinity 6, namely that Bach was in Köthen that Sunday. For some of my friends it might come as a relief that I forget some things now and then (you know who you are) but I myself was pretty shocked that I had forgotten this story that I had written about only three years ago.

Wieneke Gorter, July 25, 2020

*Michael Maul, born 1978, has been the Artistic Director of the Bachfest Leipzig since 2018, and is the most famous Bach scholar of his generation.

Alex Potter and Julia Doyle – 6th Sunday after Trinity

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soprano Julia Doyle, photo by Louise O’Dwyer

In my opinion, one of the absolute best background videos on AllofBach is the one in which countertenor Alex Potter explains the different layers of solo cantata 170 Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust from 1726. I remember how happy and impressed I was when I first found this video. So instead of offering you my own discussion, I suggest you watch Alex Potter’s here on YouTube.

Then watch the excellent and moving live performance of this cantata by Alex Potter with the Netherlands Bach Society here on YouTube.

A lot more information, including the German text with English translations, a list of all participating instrumentalists, the staff that made this beautiful document possible, and a short but insightful interview (in text only) with organist Leo van Doeselaar, can be found here on AllofBach.

Bach’s first two cycles in Leipzig didn’t include a cantata for this Sunday (the 6th after Trinity). My speculations for why this might have happened in 1723 are mentioned in this blog post. For 1724, it is very likely that Bach never wrote a cantata that year for this Sunday. Because later in his life, Bach most probably wrote Cantata 9 Es ist das Heil uns kommen her for this moment in the church year, in an effort to fill the gaps within his 1724/1725 chorale cantata cycle.

There’s a wonderful live performance of Cantata 9 on YouTube, by the J.S. Bach Foundation under direction of Rudolf Lutz. Watch it here. My favorite part of this cantata is the glorious duet Herr, du siehst statt guter Werke, beautifully sung by soprano Julia Doyle and alto Alex Potter. I love how well their voices and singing style match for this! This performance also features exquisite music-making by flutist Marc Hantaï, violinist Amandine Beyer, and tenor Charles Daniels.

Wieneke Gorter, July 17, 2020.